Our Los Angeles Kings 2019-20 Preview is a part of our series covering the entire NHL. Check them out here in the lead up to another exciting season.
After a decade where the Los Angeles Kings spent most of their time as a perennial playoff contender, winning two Stanley Cups in the process, the team is at the end of their competitive window. Although they have now missed the playoffs in three of the last five seasons, the 2018-19 season was their worst year since 2007-08, only putting up 71 points on the year.
The major storyline for the team this season is how much longer their aging core will be able to keep up in the league. Anze Kopitar (31), Dustin Brown (33), Drew Doughty (28), and Jonathan Quick (33) are in or leaving their primes and time as high end NHL’ers, and it is only a matter of time as to when the core identity of the team has to change hands. Although there is not much for high end prospects stepping up in the NHL already, the team does have a handful of promising players acquired in the past two drafts who will develop into effective NHL’ers.
The Kings tried to make a big splash last offseason by bringing back Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk to the NHL, but he scored just 16 goals and 34 points on the season. Admittedly, Kovalchuk was horribly misused by former coach Willie Desjardins, who turned Kovalchuk into a scapegoat of sorts very quickly in his brief time in L.A. This fact would explain how Kovalchuk had 14 points in 14 games to start the season, then saw his production drop significantly after the coaching change. He found himself a healthy scratch by the end of the season and on the trade block through the offseason.
The Kings are on their fourth coach since the 2016-17 offseason, now looking to Todd McLellan to find some success with the team. McLellan comes to Los Angeles after being fired by the Edmonton Oilers last December as the team struggled yet again. This move seems to be mostly a stopgap hire while the team develops. McLellan did not do much to improve his standing in the league with Edmonton. He was criticized for many things, including: his constant line juggling (which seemed to be the only page in his playbook for ingame changes), retaining questionable assistant coaches for too long leading to one of the worst special teams performances by a team in modern hockey history, playing favourites with certain players, ‘punishing’ players for one thing and letting it fly with others, inability to motivate and prepare his team (which did not improve much after his dismissal, suggesting it is not all his fault) and his poor communication skills (also subtly hinted at from Joe Thornton.
With team success often comes a lack of top draft picks and the Kings were no exception to that. From 2011 to 2016 (the peak of the team’s success), the highest the Kings selected in the draft was 29th in 2014, where they got Adrian Kempe. Not only did the team have few high draft picks, but they also had trouble picking any players who have stayed in the organization and made any sort of impact. Over those years, the team’s draft picks that have made the team and remain there to this day include Austin Wagner, Matt Roy, Adrian Kempe, Mike Amadio, and Paul Ladue. All others have either not developed into NHL calibre players or have been traded/signed elsewhere. A draft record like that is not going to be sufficient to supplement and replace the core of a very successful team.
Since 2016, however, the Kings have begun retaining their first round picks and drafting higher, which has allowed them to obtain some higher tier prospects. With Alex Turcotte leading the way, Tobias Bjornfot, Arthur Kaliyev, Rasmus Kupari, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, and Kale Clague are all very promising prospects. Overall, the team has one of the strongest prospect pools in the league with plenty of players who project to be capable NHLers. Gabriel Vilardi also falls in this category, but he is plagued by recurring injuries and his playing status and potential moving forward is dependent on recovery from those injuries.
The Kings’ roster going into 2019-20 is not great on paper. With no major changes from last season’s roster that saw them finish 30th in the league, this will be a team that has very few expectations placed on them.
The Kings are still led at centre by Anze Kopitar, who is arguably their best player. His production dropped by over 30 points compared to the prior season, and Kopitar will be looking to increase his numbers next year, which may involve him placing the team on his back and doing it all himself in a similar fashion to his 92-point, MVP finalist season in 2017-18. Also looking for a major bounceback year is Jeff Carter, who had what may have been the worst season of his career, only recording 33 points in 76 games.
Potentially the best prospect currently on the NHL roster is centre Adrian Kempe. He has had a respectable start to his NHL career and has the tools to be a solid, two-way, second line centre. However, his offensive numbers so far have not shown he can play there (scoring 37 and 28 in the last two seasons, respectively), and he appears to struggle with consistency, work ethic, and commitment. Kempe may find himself in the doghouse very quickly under Todd McLellan, as a young player with questions around those particular traits are not favourites of his. Kempe may find himself as a complimentary winger with a more driven force at his centre.
Among the options to round out the roster at centre include Trevor Lewis, Mario Kempe, and Michael Amadio. Due to the lack of depth and consistent experience at the position, the Kings have many centres in the minors and as prospects who may be able to make the NHL out of training camp. Gabriel Vilardi, provided he is and can stay healthy, is likely to join the Kings this season. Jaret Anderson-Dolan and Rasmus Kupari may have shots at a spot on the team to start the year. Anderson-Dolan had made his debut last year, getting one assist in five games but will be looked at to utilize his shot more to generate offense from all around the offensive zone. Top prospect Alex Turcotte will be playing college hockey in Wisconsin this upcoming season and will not be available for the NHL.
The Kings are very weak on the wings and this position will make it difficult to see an increase in offensive production next season. The best options for the team are Dustin Brown, Tyler Toffoli, and Ilya Kovalchuk. None of those three are guarantees for high offensive production that would warrant a place in the top two forward lines, however. Brown is two seasons removed from four consecutive years at sub-thirty points. Toffoli hasn’t come close to his career high 58 points since attaining it in 2015-16. And, Kovalchuk had a bad return to the NHL after a tumultuous season spent mostly under a coach who misused him. In a proper role, Kovalchuk should produce at a respectable rate for a first or second line forward.
Toffoli and Carter have had chemistry in the past and are a likely pair (since McLellan prefers forward pairs to three-player groups) to start the year. Brown and Kopitar have spent years playing together and can be projected to remain together next season. Kovalchuk, if he is to be utilized more appropriately, may get a shot with either of these pairs.
Beyond those three wingers, the Kings do not have many options. Alex Iafallo is the only other winger who may stick around in the top-6, as he spent a good chunk of his playing time last season with Kopitar and Brown. Free agent signing Martin Frk could play his way onto a weak roster. The remaining spots in the middle of the lineup are wide open for younger players, such as Carl Grundstrom, Nikolai Prokhorkin, Matt Luff, Sheldon Rempal, and Austin Wagner to find a spot.
Much the same as the forward group, the Kings have a couple good defensemen and a jarring lack of depth otherwise. Drew Doughty and Alec Martinez lead the way, while Derek Forbort is a formidable option as well. There is not much to say beyond those three. They bought out Dion Phaneuf after the season and traded Jake Muzzin and Oscar Fantenberg at the deadline, which eliminated most of their reputable depth at the position.
The remaining spots on defense will be competed for between Matt Roy, Joakim Ryan, and Paul LaDue. LaDue has the potential to be a solid second pairing defenseman, but he is already 26 and the window is closing for him to improve his game much more.
An organizational focus for the team has been to stock up on defensive prospects early on in the rebuild. Although the defensive prospects do not quite appear ready to stick in the NHL, some, including Kale Clague, will challenge for an NHL spot in training camp. Generally speaking, the team’s defensive prospects will be in the AHL to develop into the pro game.
Jonathan Quick still might be the most athletic and flexible goalie in the NHL. His performance over the past decade has been nothing short of incredible and he is a huge reason why the Kings have seen the success they achieved. The 2018-19 season was a career worst for Quick, as he played 46 games and posted a 3.38 GAA and .888 SV%, definitely not the numbers of a starting NHL goalie. He has been dealing with injuries, limiting his GP and explaining, in part, the regression of his statline. Jack Campbell was more than ready to pick up the reins in the Kings net, as he put up exceptional numbers for backstopping the 30th place team. He may see more of a split in playing time this coming season, if Quick does not rebound after recovering for the offseason from injuries.
The Kings are counting on Cal Petersen to be the next starter in Los Angeles. He is one of the organization’s most highly touted prospects who has spent most of the past two seasons developing in the AHL, and made his NHL debut last season. Goalies often take longer to develop and the team is not rushing him into an NHL role, preferring instead to focus on getting him quality playing time in the minors to develop until needed.
Los Angeles Kings 2019-20 Prediction
7th-8th Pacific Division
This is basically the same roster as the one that finished last in the Pacific in 2018-19. Aside from a few prospects maybe making their NHL debuts and a new coach, not much has changed. Most of the teams in the Pacific are either better to begin with or made more promising changes to their teams over the offseason, leaving the Kings behind. The only way they do not finish last in the division again is if Kopitar turns into an MVP finalist again and Jonathan Quick returns to form. Otherwise, it may be a long season for the Kings.